Julie Larios suspects her love of writing may be oddly linked with a love of the paraphernalia of writing.
“I have an inordinate love of pencils and pencil boxes, post-it-notes, old fountain pens, vellum, architectural paper, school notebooks, scotch tape, erasers, paper clips, ink, envelopes,” she says. “Maybe I became a writer because I loved stationary stores!”
But, in a more serious vein, she traces her love of writing back to when she was a child and her mom and dad used to read aloud to her and her sister and brother, and they gave her and her siblings a children’s poetry collection called The Bumper Book, with pages filled with poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, Edward Lear, Christopher Morley, and many others.
“I read that book so many times it literally fell apart in my hands,” Larios says, admitting that she still has the book stored safely away, although it’s so old and so well-read that the binding is falling apart.
As a child, she was a closet worrier, although she prefers to remember herself as a fearless tomboy willing to do anything. “Cows scared me, believe it or not. Also, things I couldn’t see under water (like fish and sea grass and kelp) scared me when I was swimming. Sleeping outside scared me and thrilled me, both. So my second book, Have you Ever Done That? begins with the sense that some acts—even small acts like sleeping underneath the stars on a warm summer night—might require courage.”
She began writing her own poems in grade school and remembers being inspired by a dreamy junior high school English teacher, Mr. Ernst, who gave her Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as part of a poetry prize that she won.
Since then she’s had many poems published in a variety of national magazines and journals, including The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Georgia Review, and others. Her work is included in The Best American Poetry 2007, edited by Billy Collins, as well as in the Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXI and The Best New Poets 2006.
“Poetry is like any other craft where the object you’re producing takes shape very slowly,” she says. “That slowness is a joy.”
Most of the joy, she says, is in the work, and, of course, she takes great joy in the words themselves.
“I admit to going through phases of doing absolutely nothing besides dreaming and lolling about,” said Larios. “My husband and kids have been very patient with me over the years; they know I go into trances, and I’ve convinced them good poems come from strange places inside my head.”
Once Larios finds an idea and chooses a form, she sits down with a piece of paper and writes. That’s about as much process as she can muster, she explains, other than the fact that she sits down the next day and revises again and again.
Larios was kind enough to take a break from revising her poems to share some thoughts on her writing process with wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming … how do you get into the water each day?
Larios: Truth be told, I don't! Some days I sit down at the edge of the water, look at the sky, feel the sun on my face, watch the clouds, hear birds chirping, think about what a lovely world it is. Those days I feel just as creative as the days when I'm writing. I don't even think about writing or about being inspired on those days - I just float in the world. Other days, and luckily there are not too many of them, I look at the water and I think "Brrrrrr..." or "Ugh..."and I go right back inside, in a funk. I wouldn't have produced good work that day, no matter what, so I'm better off admitting it. When I do decide to swim, I don't get into the water inch by inch - I go under completely and turn into a fish. I forget I can speak. I grow gills.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Larios: Since most of my work is on a single poem at a time, I find it easy to stay afloat/immersed. I've often told friends I would love to work on fiction but it is just SO LONG. It would be so easy to drown in fiction, even with gills! I'm definitely made for poetry, one poem at a time, and I can stay afloat through the writing of a longer essay—some of my “Undersung” articles for Numero Cinq, for example. But even by the end of those I begin to gasp and sputter a little.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Larios: I read, read, and then read some more. I basically let the water other writers swam in get me through my own droughts.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Larios: Aside from being drawn away from the water by so many other interesting things to do, I think the hardest part is sustaining the belief that I can swim gracefully and powerfully, and that I have some talent for it. When an experienced writer begins to believe "I can't do this," or "I don't do this well," swimming gets difficult and dangerous. Corny as it sounds, self-doubt is the most debilitating thing.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Larios: Well, maybe I'm missing a piece emotionally, because I find it not too difficult to swim alone. I find it peaceful. I don't turn to friends as often as I should, possibly—at least, not for help with my writing and not for any emotional support to get through writer's block. When I approach obstacles (see "funks" and "dry spells" above) I've been known to look at them and just say "Hmmm..interesting." I'm curious about the way we are challenged by the mysteries and detours life presents to us, and I often write about exactly those things in my poems. I also do a lot of detouring, just out of curiosity, so maybe obstacle-anxiety is not part of who I am. I don't mind it when work keeps me up all night. I get into such a trance when I write; I don't feel challenged as much as I feel kind of exhilarated by it. Also, as I said above, I don't mind getting out of the water from time to time—that doesn't worry me. What worries me is not swimming with gusto. Just putting in the time, that worries me. "Butt in chair" has never been my favorite approach to writing, which might explain why no one would call me a prolific writer. But when I do write— I mean, when I swim— I love doing it so much. There's nothing like it.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Larios: The part of swimming I love most? I definitely love the feeling that I've gotten it right—I've described an experience exactly as I meant to, or I've asked precisely (that is, with precision, like any careful craftsman) the questions that I wanted to ask about something I find mysterious or puzzling. When I get it right, I can feel it. It has something to do with finding the right rhythm with words. I think runners call it "hitting your stride"—maybe swimmers do, too!
For more information about Julie Larios, visit her website: http://julielarios.blogspot.com/
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